By Dr Lara Briden
As a biologist and a clinician, I’m a practical person. I don’t adhere to any particular theory or “diet philosophy” but am instead open to any way of eating that demonstrably supports the vitality and wellness of my patients.
For me, that’s the fundamental test: “Is this diet working for my patient? Is it nourishing her? Is she thriving?” And: “Is this diet supporting healthy regular ovulation and menstruation?” (Because ovulation is a useful barometer of general health.)
“Is this diet working?” is actually a fairly easy bar to clear for most whole food diets because the body is remarkably adaptable.
One of the few whole food diets that routinely does not pass my “patients thriving” test is an exclusively plant-based or vegan diet. Over the years, I’ve spoken to many patients who wanted to thrive on a vegan diet but did not. Instead, they felt well for six to twelve months and then started experiencing problems like fatigue and irregular periods.
When some of those same patients finally got back onto animal foods, they said things to me like:
“Since I switched back to an animal protein diet, I cannot even describe the energy I have!”
“If I don’t eat enough protein, I end up on the floor in tears.”
“Meat, as a female, makes you feel so much better.”
“Vegans really should tell you how awful you’re going to feel doing that diet.”
These are just anecdotes, of course. Some of my readers insist they do well on a vegan diet, and maybe that’s true, but I have not personally spoken to even one patient who was thriving on a long-term vegan diet.
I say “long-term” because a short-term vegan diet can deliver benefits such as clearer skin, lighter periods, and less brain fog–benefits which almost certainly come from avoiding dairy, not meat.
The Benefits of Avoiding Cow’s Dairy
A1 casein in cow’s dairy is a potentially inflammatory protein for some people. It worsens atopic reactions like eczema and asthma, and it contributes to women’s health problems such as PMS, period pain, and heavy periods. I routinely ask patients to try avoiding A1 cow’s dairy (but continue A2 dairy like goat and sheep), and many of them report significant improvements.
Eggs are the other animal food that can cause immune reactions and health problems in some people.
A sensitivity to dairy and/or eggs is a valid reason to avoid those two foods. It’s not a valid reason to avoid all animal foods.
Women’s Unique Requirement for Animal Protein
I think we can safely say that women need animal protein at least as much as men do–and maybe even more.
Why more? Because, for one thing, women have a higher requirement than men for the amino acid taurine. Taurine is an important nutrient involved not just in protein synthesis, but also in osmoregulation, detoxification, membrane stabilization, and brain health. (It’s even classified as a neurotransmitter!) The body contains up to 70 grams of taurine at any one time, and most of that needs to come from animal protein. Although it is possible to synthesise some amount of taurine from cysteine and methionine, it’s not easy to do and that’s why taurine is a “conditional amino acid.” Conditional means that taurine can be made by the body, but not under certain circumstances such as stress, insulin resistance, or impaired liver function. Taurine can also not be made in the presence of a large amount of estrogen, and so women who take exogenous estrogen (such as the birth control pill) need even more taurine!
The other reason why women may have a special requirement for animal protein is that we have the huge metabolic challenge of needing to ovulate every month. Ovulation requires optimal nutrition, not just for the actual event (which is energy-intensive) but also for the hormonal signaling that regulates ovulation. Regulation happens at the hypothalamus which is constantly monitoring food availability and deciding whether there is enough nutrition to make a baby.
My clinical experience is that women need to be fully nourished to be able to ovulate regularly. That includes getting adequate macronutrients, especially protein, and that includes getting adequate micronutrients including zinc, iron, selenium, vitamin A, and iodine. Those micronutrients are somewhat available from plant-based foods, but they are far more available from animal foods such as meat, eggs, and fish.
In conclusion, I routinely ask my patients to consume animal products to improve their hormonal health, and I see good results.
Sometimes I meet a patient who feels strongly that she will not eat animal products and I don’t pressure her. Instead, I say: “It’s your choice, of course, but we are going to have to lower our expectations about how healthy you can be.”
Bio: Lara Briden is a naturopathic doctor with 20 years experience in women’s health. Informed by a strong science background, she’s is a passionate communicator about women’s health and alternatives to hormonal birth control. Through her work with thousands of patients with PCOS, thyroid disease, and other conditions, she’s had the opportunity to witness first-hand the transformative power of ancestral health principles. She’s the author of Period Repair Manual and resides in Christchurch.